Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Jay and the Americans - 4 - Bennie and the Jets

1973
"Bennie and the Jets" was the best song on the radio. It was on in the car when Carl picked me up.  Laura was with him. They thought it was a good idea if I went to see my mother in the hospital. 

The hospital was a figure 8, like two aluminum cylinders attached to one another.  All the rooms had beautiful Valley views when the smog was light; still everything was uptight on the smoggiest days, when the soot would sit in the Valley like dirty wool.  When we got there, that's how it was.


My mother was attached to shiny machines with lights and ticker tape and tubes running in and out like she was a part of the building.  But as we entered the room she was sitting up in bed drinking Bubble-Up through a straw.  A breeze kicked up and she said I should close the big sliding glass door. "I'm so happy to see you. I can’t believe how tall." I'd seen her only a few times in the past year and I guess that I'd shot up.  Carl kissed her on the forehead. A doctor came in and jabbed her and so did a nurse.  She said, "I'm so tired of being poked." She seemed so weary.
 
The sun was shining in her face. Carl went to close the blinds, but she said no, she wanted to watch the lights come on. I sat next to her in a chair and she just looked at me, and looked at me. Like always, they were looks of regret. I got up and went to the sliding door. The Valley was clear now and the sun was on the horizon. I was doing my best not to cry, but it was no use. Laura stood by me and I put my head on her shoulder. I kept asking myself: "Why should I cry for you?" When I turned back around, she was asleep, and the nurse came in to announce that visiting hours were over. 

Laura's apartment was in Echo Park and Carl dropped us off. She said she'd take me home. Across from the lake there was a big stone wall dotted with stairwells. There was a little picket gate by her steps; not that that would deter anyone.  It wasn't the best of neighborhoods, but it was lovely. You walked up the steps to a building that hugged the hilly terrain. Laura had a tiny one bedroom with a view of the park and the Hollywood sign in the distance. She had a big date palm heavy with fruit in front of the window.

She made us supper. She had Chinese greens and onions and she fried them in peanut oil and soy sauce. We sat cross-legged on the floor on big pillows from Pier 1 and listened to records. We listened to Late for the Sky and Desperado. She said call your grandmother. Tell her you'll be home in the morning. She had these mushrooms. She said just try it. I was reluctant, but it was Laura. I hemmed and hawed and she said you'll never be the same.
  
Echo Park
"Do I want that?" I asked. She put on Miles Davis and read from a book by Carlos Casteneda called A Separate Reality. It was all about altered states and about the desert and about the mind, and I touched things, and things touched me. "I feel like I'm in water," I said. She spilled a bottle of 7-Up and in that puddle of bubbles I saw the whole universe, and the next one. Color. Color. Color. Color. I am a lonely painter; I live in a box of paints. She was singing so beautifully. The floor swirled like ice cream and then we were engulfed in white, the absence of color; there was ringing everywhere and I could hear my name (if only I could remember my name), and then there was her face by mine and she was lying on the couch and she said, "You're my best friend. Grow up and we'll be lovers," and I gripped the grass around me and ripped up handfuls of earth. The ground was cold and damp and the frogs were chirping and they stopped and there was silence and at the first light of dawn Laura said, "Just play beautiful songs." I played "Never My Love" and "Little Wing" and "Over the Hills and Far Away."

Click Here
"My mother’s not going to make it, is she?" She didn't answer me. I forgot for a moment that she'd lost her parents as well. I said, "I'm sorry."

She said, "I know." She made good money so she bought a new car, a red BMW 1800.  It looked like a bathtub on wheels.  It was fast and had a cassette stereo.  She played "The Song Remains the Same" and I threw up out the window.  It was all eggs and mushrooms. Three days later my mother died. 

"I have to tell my father," I said. "I have to." My grandmother said she would take me. "No.  I can take the bus. I know how to take a bus." 

So Far
And she acquiesced. "You be careful.  I'm so sorry, sweetheart.  You be careful."  She gave me ten dollars. I took the No. 93. I forgot to brush my teeth. It bothered me all day long. I had a taste in my mouth; a bitterness. I checked off all the landmarks in my mind. Sambo's on Ventura Blvd., the Hollywood Bowl, the Chinese Theater, Tiny Naylor's, the carwash on Sunset. We waited at the light at Laurel Canyon, and I got off the 93 at La Cienega. I went into a store and bought a pack of Dentyne.
It was a hot day. I crossed the Strip to the shady side. There was 461 Ocean Blvd. He did that one.  Up ahead was It's Only Rock’n Roll. That was a really good one, but it wasn't his. And then I saw him on the billboard: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, So Far, half done.   

"Can I come up?"

"You’re not allowed to come up."

"But I need to come up."

"Then come up." When I told him he just kept painting. 




"Did she say anything?" I told him no. He wanted details that I didn't dare describe. My grandfather was a nice man.  He was old fashioned and he always wore a suit. If it was a hundred degrees, he would still wear his suit. I remember a time we went to Disneyland. He liked the Mark Twain riverboat. He took it around and around. He sat on the front deck and tapped his foot to the Dixieland band. My mother and father and I got off the Pirates of the Caribbean and sat by the waterfront. The steamboat passed slowly by and there was my grandfather, in his suit, tapping his foot to "The Basin Street Blues." That is how I would like to remember him. Instead, an open coffin and a man made of wax and modeling clay pervaded my thoughts.

I thought that a lot of people would come to her funeral.  I thought that Hal David would come and Joni Mitchell and Ray Conniff and his singers and David Crosby; she had made him eggs.  I thought that Hollywood people would come and their friends and people who slept on the couch in Topanga, but it was Carl and Laura, my father and me; my grandmother was there and the twins from New Jersey.  Seven of us.
   
There was a couch in the lobby and I put my head down and fell asleep. When I opened my eyes, my father and Carl were shaking hands. He and Laura left in separate cars. "I'll call you, Jay." She kissed me on the cheek. Her lips were very dry and chapped. We dropped off the twins at a motel on Ventura Blvd, and then we went to Sambo's. My father had a pancake sandwich. My grandmother had coffee. She said she wasn't hungry. I had a chili-size. 

We didn't talk about my mother at all. Nobody could right then. But my grandmother said, "I didn't like you, Bill. I was wrong." He reached across the table and put his hand on hers.


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